Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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from The Serialist

The Torn Plaid Coat party was in a bar in Williamsburg. I had to take three trains to get there, but still, when I reached the door, where a few dozen bikes were chained, and peeked in at that convention of expensive jeans, ironic vintage T-shirts and interesting glasses, my knees buckled and I almost turned around. Luckily the reading was in progress and I was able to slip in quickly and duck to the back. At the podium, a freckled young poetess with long red ringlets was holding forth, chanting in that whiney up-and-down singsong I think of as the Generic Poetic.

“I recall:
the morning light
was clear and firm
the sheets were crisp.
Chau-bak brought breadfruit
from the garden
and opened it with
a knife.
You, too, opened me.
Parting like any ripe breadfruit does.
In a way no man ever had.
Sweet summer sister.
I recall.”

This got a warm round of applause and then Jane stepped up.

“Thanks, Margaret, that was lovely. And you can read more of her work in the new issue of Coat. Not to be too pushy, ha.” There were a few chuckles. Jane laughed nervously at her little joke and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. She looked more beautiful than ever, in a sundress, awkward and happy. “Our next reader, who is also appearing—well, not appearing, his work is appearing in our spring issue—is fictionist Michael Branborn, whose short story collection Impossible Tribes is due out this fall. Michael?”

A tousled young man, younger than me anyway, in thick black eyeglass frames, and wearing a leather jacket over a vintage Happy Days T-shirt, got up and hugged Jane chastely before acknowledging the hearty applause. Clearly he was a local favorite. In the front row, I recognized the shaved head of Ryan, Jane’s husband. He wore plastic red eyeglass frames and a Gumby T-shirt, and sat with a woman whom I recognized as important from somewhere. Maybe on Charlie Rose.

“Thanks,” the young writer began. “This story is from my book. It’s called ‘The Alien Invasion of Scarsdale.’” There was a lot of overly enthusiastic laughter at this. Branborn laughed too. “I used to really dig these toys called Transformers. Does anybody here remember Transformers?” More whoops and howls. “Cool. Well this takes place in the summer of 1990, which as you might remember, was the last year for the original Japanese line of Transformers.”

“Yes!” someone shouted, and Michael laughed again.

“All right. Cool. Ha. OK, so anyway, here’s the story.” He took a sip of Brooklyn Beer from the bottle. “Josh racing down the driveway, skidding to a stop on his Schwinn Racer five-speed. I had envied that bike ever since he got it for his birthday. Chrome handlebars and banana seat.”

This got a nice laugh too, and unable to swallow anymore, I got up and went downstairs, where, like some guilt-stricken perv, I loitered about in the restroom, pretending to wash my hands. I searched my bloodshot eyes in the mirror, counted my gray hairs, and by the time I climbed back up, Branborn had reached his climax.

“And so . . .” he was now intoning, beer raised, manuscript aloft, “we fall at last into the arms of our own lawn, which was, that summer, the greenest green in all of Scarsdale.”

Jubilant applause. The tattooed pixie sitting in front of me whispered to her multi-pierced friend: “I love that, greenest green.”

I fled once more, this time to the bar. I was about to order a shot of Pepto-Bismol and split when I felt a tap on my arm.

“Hi, Jane.” We exchanged an awkward cheek kiss and shoulder-level hug. “How are you?”

“Super. Everything’s excellent,” she said. “How are you?”

“Fantastically superb.”

She laughed. “Did you like the reading?”

“Absolutely incredible.”

“OK, OK. I get it. Here, take this anyway.” She handed me a copy of The Torn Plaid Coat. The cover of course was a plaid, this time drawn in what looked like crayon, with a ragged tear actually die-cut into the paper, exposing part of the contents page.

“Thanks,” I said. By then a small herd of writers and artists had gathered around us, or around her, as I was quickly closed out of the circle. “Ted, Kylie, Jeremy, Sloane,” she sang. “This is Harry. A friend.” I winced at that.

“Hi, everyone.” I waved roundly, searching for a way out. There was a lull as the group regarded me. Jane pointed to a tall fuzzy man. “Ted’s novel just got picked up.”

“Great,” I said.

He put his palms together and dipped his beard.

“Actually, you might be interested,” Jane went on. “It’s about coming of age, really, in an eccentric family in Ann Arbor in the ’90s.”

“Great,” I said again. “That does sound interesting.”

“Don’t congratulate me too much,” Ted said. “Selling it was the easy part. Now I have to write it.” He mock whispered, “I’m sentencing myself to Yaddo.”

We all chuckled.

“God, don’t do that,” drawled Kylie, blowing smoke through her bangs. She’d written an anorexic memoir called Skintight. I recognized her from the naked picture on the cover, which I’d ogled in the store, without buying it, of course. “I wrote my book sitting alone in a room at the Chelsea.”

“Yeah, the bathroom,” snapped Jeremy, a hooded and baggy-jeaned fellow, who’d written a memoir about growing up rich and misunderstood in Connecticut as the son of a famous writer. He turned to me. “I never even leave Brooklyn anymore. What do you do?”

“Podiatrist,” I said. “In Queens. I have to get back, actually. Emergency. Poor kid might lose a toe. Excuse me.” But I found my retreat blocked by Ryan, pale ale in hand. Why had I ever left my room? In my life, I mean.

“Hey, Bloch. How are you?”

“Ryan, hi, what’s up?” We shook hands heartily.

“So Harry, what are you working on?” he asked with a smile.

“Oh, Ryan, the usual bullshit,” I said, and laughed shrilly.

“Seriously,” he said, “when are you going to write something real, with your real name on it?”

“I am, I am,” I told him. “It’s a coming of age novel. Only The Lame Know Queens.”

“Seriously, Harry,” he said again, in a warmer tone, and behind their twin windows, his eyes blinked kindly at me. And then, I don’t know why, for no good reason, maybe to chase away that look, too close to pity, or to squash the slightly human feeling I was almost having near someone I couldn’t afford to like, I added: “Actually, Ryan, I’m cowriting a book with Darian Clay, the serial killer.”

“Really?” he said, stepping back. “You don’t say?”

“Holy shit,” Jeremy broke in, bumping into Ryan. “The one they’re about to execute?”

“He took those pictures, I remember,” Kylie said, joining the circle. “He chopped up those girls.”

“They never found the heads,” Ted added through his beard.

“Did you really meet him?” blonde Sloane, the spoken word artist, asked as she sidled up. “That is so creepy,” she added, standing a bit too close.

“Yeah, of course,” I told her, with a casual smile. “I’m going back to interview him. They’re going to execute him in like eighty-something days.”

A brief silence descended, though this time I was not the uneasy one. I felt at peace. Perhaps the angel of death passed over. Perhaps each reflected on his or her own proud project and the dust it would one day become. Jane stared at the faux-torn copy of Coat in her hand. Ryan raised his beer bottle to his lips. They all shut up for a moment, and looked at the ceiling or the floor, as if in acknowledgment of what I myself had suddenly decided: I was going to write this book. Finally, there was a real writer in the room.

As I nodded good-bye and turned to go, I heard Jeremy whisper to Jane. “He’s also a podiatrist.”


The third name on Clay’s list was Sandra Dawson. She lived in Brooklyn, on the cusp of Bushwick. I took the L train to Montrose and then walked a few blocks. It was a neighborhood of car repair shops, mattress warehouses and restaurants advertising Mexican, Dominican, or Ecuadorian food. She rented a railroad flat on the top floor of a three-story brick building with a bodega downstairs and a metal grill over the street door. I knew from her letters that she was in her mid-twenties and lived with a roommate, a girl who had no idea who Sandra “really was.” Nor did her colleagues in the financial district, where she worked as “a word processor,” while pursuing a degree in Library Science. In the photos Clay gave me, she was little and sly, with thin blonde hair and thin pale arms. Her body was like a young boy’s, smooth, freckled and hairless. You could count the ribs. In person, when I hauled myself up her stairs, she looked more prosaic in glasses, a ponytail and a printed cotton dress with flip-flops. Her roommate was out, she said, but still, after a brief deliberation, she decided that she’d feel better talking in her own room.

Her bedroom was younger than the rest of the apartment, with a ruffle under the bed, a puffy white comforter, a beveled white dresser with a curvy mirror, and pictures cut from magazines taped to the wall. Although there was a theme of dark glamour to the selection, the images were far softer than at Marie Fontaine’s place, and featured red roses, black skies cut by a slivered moon, and voluptuous women in lacey underwear, pouting beside still waters or crumbling walls of stone.

“I’m a subslut,” she informed me, as if that were an official post, one rank below full slut, or perhaps she filled in for sluts who had the flu.

“What’s that exactly?”

“I’m a submissive masochist by nature. I like the man to control me. I like pain and humiliation. I like to be abused.”

“Huh, interesting.” I put what I hoped was a calm, thoughtful expression on my face. She was completely matter-of-fact, sitting cross-legged on the bed while I squirmed in a white wicker chair. “When did you first realize you were like that?”

“I just always was. When I was little I liked testing myself, seeing how hard my cousin could bite down on my finger and stuff. I was always trying to get the other kids to tie me up.”

“Like how? You mean for games?”

“Yeah, like tied to a tree, or if we played some fantasy game I’d always find a way to get taken prisoner with my hands tied behind my back or blindfolded. Most of the kids didn’t tie very well, and I’m skinny so usually I could slip right out, but this one girl tied me really tight, she was into it, really serious, she bound me so I couldn’t move at all, and the jump rope we were using, you know that white rope, really cut in, and it went between my legs and that was the first time I really remember being excited and I shifted around so the rope rubbed against my clit.”

“Huh. Interesting,” I repeated, sounding, I hoped, very professional. I crossed my legs without thinking, then realizing this looked like I was guarding my crotch, I uncrossed them.

“Then we started playing a lot, me and her. Her name was Clarissa. Always something like I was the slave or the captive. Sometimes we even played that I was her dog. We took my dog’s real leash and bowl and put it on me and she made me fetch and then drink out of the bowl. Then she walked me in the backyard and I peed and my Mom caught me.” She laughed brightly and covered her mouth. I laughed too.

“What happened?”

“My poor parents were so clueless. My mom told my dad, who spanked me. Which just totally sealed the deal of course.”

“What happened to Clarissa?”

“We drifted apart. She went to a different school. As far as I heard, she’s vanilla. You know, like a straight regular girl. I think she’s married.”

“And you don’t want that.”

“You know my ultimate fantasy?” She tucked her legs under her and leaned forward confidentially.


“To be sold into the white slave trade.”

“Does that exist?” I asked, picturing a Technicolor harem movie with Jerry Lewis.

“I’ve heard about it.”

“What, like you imagine being owned by one person or turned out at a brothel?”

“Usually a mix of both.”

“And you like that? Do you think you’d really do it?”

“If my owner said I had to, of course.”

“Your owner?”

“Master Darian.” She smiled serenely.

“Oh, he’s your owner? Officially.”

“We made a contract. I belong to him. I’m registered as his slave on the internet. That’s why I’m with you now.”

“He commanded you to talk to me?”

“Yes. Well, more than that.”


She hesitated. “He said he was lending me to you.”

“Sorry?” I asked, pretending I didn’t hear.

“As a gift. Because he likes what you wrote.”

“Really? Huh. He didn’t mention it. Like, how do you mean gift?” She moved toward me, palms out. I felt myself blushing, not the coolest look for a middle-aged man.

“As a slave,” she said. “To use anyway you want.”

“I, I don’t know.”

“Please.” Her voice rose higher. “He’ll be mad if I don’t. He wants you to use me. He wants you to know how it feels, so that you can write about it.”

“Oh, well, thanks. Thanks a lot. That’s sweet, but, but . . .” I began to stammer, as if reaching for fresh ways to express anxiety. “I can just, just imagine it all from here, or I mean later at home. Or. Or what I meant to say. It’s all part of being a writer. Not really having to, to, to . . .” I swallowed. “To do anything.”

“But I want to,” she said. She dropped to her knees. “I’d be honored, Sir, to receive your abuse.” She leaned forward, chest on the floor, and gazed up at me in the posture of a supplicant puppy. Her nose touched the tip of my shoe.

“Well!” I giggled and jerked as if she’d tickled me, clipping her with my toe. She squeaked in pain.

“Oh, sorry, sorry. I’m terribly sorry.”

“That’s OK,” she mumbled, clutching her nose. “I like it.”

“Right, right.” Now I was no longer stuttering, but for some reason I had an English accent that I couldn’t control. “Well, it’s not that I’m not flattered. Because really I am. Quite.” I shoveled my stuff into my bag and stood. She followed on knees, arms out, beseeching, as I prattled on.

“It’s just rather bad timing. Do thank your master for me. And thank you as well. Good day.” I jerked her cool hand in my sweaty grip and ran out, embarrassed, weirdly upset, and, I admit, with one small part of me hating myself for not seizing the chance to do something awful. What kind of lame writer was I?

Somewhere between lust and tears, I bolted downstairs and up the street, so rattled that I was through the subway turnstile before I realized I’d forgotten my tape recorder. Great. Now I had to go back. I was tempted to just leave it behind rather than march back up and face her. As a nice final touch, the train came rolling in just as I began reclimbing the stairs to the street. Perhaps the passengers would point at me and jeer as they rode by.

Cursing myself, I hurried back, and again trudged up the three flights, trying to catch my breath and stifle the images that bloomed in my overheated brain: the kneeling girl, the pleading eyes. When was the last time anyone had called me “sir?”

The door was still open like I’d left it. “Sandra,” I called. “It’s me again. Sorry, I forgot my recorder.” Huffing, I crossed to the bedroom, and rapped the doorframe with my knuckles, “Hello, hello,” as I stepped through. Then I halted, as if I had accidentally entered the wrong room, the wrong apartment, the wrong world.

How many times have I written scenes of horror and mayhem? Hundreds. And often, I admit, out of laziness or just to squeeze time, I’ve described them as “indescribable” or “beyond words.” But actually the words for violence are always simple and easy to find; a child knows them. It is the thoughts those words engender that seem impossible: Is this really the stuff we are made of? Is this all we are inside?

Once, on a sleepless night, I elaborated a whole theory of art predicated on simply reminding the ever-forgetful mind of the most basic truths: We float in water and revolve around the sun. We are born out of a woman’s body and are made of meat and bone. One day, pretty soon, we will die.

And so, stepping through that door in Brooklyn, I was not only, as I would probably say in a book, speechless with fear, I was struck completely wordless, breathless, thoughtless, by one simple English sentence I could not understand: Sandra Dawson was dead.    

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